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The ghosts of bankers past

Posted on: November 29th, 2009 1 Comment

DID you know that Leinster House was haunted? No, not just by the ghosts of de Valera, Michael Collins and Countess Markievicz.

They are mere run-of-the-mill spirits, civil war heroes or heroines, names regularly invoked by TDs to inflame earthly political controversies.

Last week, a more visible class of ghost floated into the corridors of power.

Ireland’s banking apparitions were caught on camera.

Bank of Ireland and AIB were billed to appear before an Oireachtas Committee.

The bankers sent along a flotilla of ghosts to answer questions about their antics.

Down in the dungeons of Leinster House we had eagerly anticipated an energising session, an introduction to all those new brooms promised by the banks, voices of the culture change that we are assured is on the way.

Bank of Ireland topped the bill. First on the block was the brand new governor.

Fresh blood would deliver the new message to the occupants of Leinster House.

Enter ghost number one.

Governor Pat Molloy took prime position. Here was the reinvented face of Bank of Ireland.

Pat the Banker, 71, was killed off 11 years ago, then served as a part-time director for three years. He was given the normal fee to soften the blow of departure.

Last week in Leinster House, Pat the Banker was resurrected, setting the scene for a procession of ghosts and retrenched insiders.

Pat the Banker, today’s sudden white hope of BoI, joined the bank 52 years ago — in 1957, when Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States, the year when Jack B Yeats died (but Elvis was still alive), the year that Harold MacMillan was prime minister of Britain, three years before Brian Cowen was born.

Some newcomer.

Pat was a Bank of Ireland ‘lifer’ until his banking life ended eight years ago.

His period in the bankers’ graveyard did little damage to the sharp intellect he had always displayed. On Wednesday, he answered questions from TDs and senators with efficiency.

Pat referred many questions about Bank of Ireland’s lack of lending to small businesses to his battle-hardened companions on the platform, Richie Boucher and Des Crowley.

Richie Boucher is the same guy who appeared before the same committee just 18 months ago to tell us that all was well in Irish banking. Six months after his nonsensical reassurances, Richie — the heir apparent — was catapulted to the top job in Bank of Ireland with unseemly haste.

Richie was the insiders’ anointed successor to the departing Brian Goggin last February.

Beside Richie sat his recent rival for the top job, Des Crowley. Des was pipped at the post by Richie, but he, too, is a Bank of Ireland loyalist.

Both men were on the board at the time of BoI’s infatuation with the property frenzy; but such catastrophic mistakes do not seem to matter. Indeed, in our major banks it appears to be a badge of honour if you were around when the manure hit the fan. Bankers call such cock-ups “experience”, while insisting that insider appointments provide “continuity”.

Des does not qualify for the “ghost” category, but he has been in Bank of Ireland since 1988, just 21 years. Another insider.

So Pat and Des together boast 65 years in the Bank of Ireland. So much for the change in culture.

All three insiders parried questions with confidence. And so they should. They have decades of practice at eyeballing politicians.

When I asked Pat the Banker why there were no new faces, why internal rather than external appointments had been made, he merely replied that they had “the right team in place”.

Des responded to questions from Fine Gael’s Richard Bruton by quoting figures about lending, suggesting that BoI was gentle humanity itself when it came to dealing with small businesses.

After an hour-and-a-half, Pat the ghost floated out of the dungeon with his two disciples; hardly a political glove had landed on their practised shoulders.

Following a short break, it was AIB’s turn to send in their new brooms. Enter ghost number two.

I gasped. No less a banker than Eugene Sheehy took the podium.

Most observers were under the impression that Eugene had been pronounced a dead banker back in April. Indeed he was, but he was instantly installed on AIB’s life-support machine. So on Wednesday, AIB sent a corpse in to bat against the TDs and senators.

Clever thinking. Not much they could do to hurt a corpse. And this week Eugene will finally be a goner.

The signal could not have been clearer: Eugene may be history but the culture is the same. His legacy lives on.

In any event, AIB did not want to expose his successor, Colm Doherty, to scrutiny — because the embarrassing matter of his succession to the job could arise. TDs might raise the issue of how the AIB directors managed to pull the wool over the Taoiseach’s eyes and appoint another arch-insider. Better to dispatch Eugene the ghost.

Eugene, another lifer, joined AIB 38 years ago. He, too, is a veteran of Oireachtas Committees. Even under skilful pressure from Labour’s Joan Burton and Fine Gael’s Kieran O’Donnell he gave a polished farewell performance.

He was unruffled, bearing the resigned air of a man who knew he would be toast within days.

Sheehy’s successor, Colm Doherty, has only been in AIB for a paltry 22 years. He barely passes the AIB “culture” test. Doherty is a tastier dish, waiting in the oven for a future grilling.

While Colm was missing from Eugene’s side on Wednesday, the other two chosen performers were none other than AIB chairman Dan O’Connor and the head of the Republic of Ireland division, Robbie Henneberry.

O’Connor is the man who has blithely broken the rules of corporate governance to assume the position of AIB executive chairman. He has shown two fingers to the Government by breaching the guidelines. Like Boucher at the Bank of Ireland, he was slotted into his new post by the nimble directors before the minister had time to blink. O’Connor was part of the cabal that installed Doherty.

The final player in the parliamentary pantomime was AIB’s Robbie Henneberry. Robbie has served AIB since 1980 — just short of 30 years — a novice by Wednesday’s standards. Robbie is no ghost, just another veteran, well-versed in the AIB culture. Robbie and Eugene together boast 67 years inhaling the clean and healthy air of AIB.

The AIB trio had hardly begun answering questions when the Dail’s division bells tolled. The room emptied. Not for the first time politicians rode to the rescue of bankers. Eugene the ghost was spirited away with Dan the insider and Robbie the veteran.

Down in the dungeons of Leinster House last Wednesday, there was no sign of regime change at our two biggest banks, merely proof that the ghosts had returned to haunt the mortals.